Wednesday, 02 December 2020

 


FC Tokyo is an unusual example of a club that missed the original creation of the J.League and subsequent expansion phase, yet which has spent most of its history in the top-flight division. It earned promotion by finishing second, in the J2's inaugural season, and has has spent all but one year since that time in the J1. The club, based in western Tokyo, only became a professional team with the creation of the J2, in 1999, but the club from which FC Tokyo evolved has been around for several decades. It originated as the club team of Tokyo Gas, and was a competitive company team in the JSL, representing the western suburbs of Tokyo. When the J.League was formed, Tokyo Gas opted to remain in the JFL, where it was one of the most successful amateur teams of the 1990s. When the league was reconstituted for a second time, in 1998, Tokyo Gas FC decided it was time to make the jump to professional status. Team officials convinced Tokyo Gas to grant it corporate independence, and it assumed the name FC Tokyo.

The Capitol City Blues advanced to the first division in grand style, with a victory over Yokohama Marinos in their first-ever J1 match. Although FC Tokyo faded later in the season, it nevertheless managed to achieve one of the highest rankings ever for a newly-promoted club. Traditionally, the team relied on veteran, lunchpail players picked up from other clubs, such as former Antlers Naruyuki Naito and Tadatoshi Masuda, former S-Pulse defender Yukihiko Sato and journeyman midfielder Fumitake Miura. Although these players demonstrated a good work ethic, they were obviously released from their former clubs for a reason. Over its first few years in the J1, FC Tokyo acquired the nickname "The island of lost boys", to reflect the tremendous number of players that were picked up as castoffs from other teams.

But this moniker did not last long, once the team moved into the top division. FC Tokyo quickly refuted the myth that "big-city teams cannot draw faithful fans", rising to second place in terms of total attendance in 2001. The magnificent "Ajinomoto Stadium" in Western Tokyo, which both FC Tokyo and Tokyo Verdy call home, helps to ensure large crowds. But FC Tokyo also worked hard to build its fan base through grassroots efforts. Though Verdy had a decade-long head start as a J.League team, and a record of past glory, FC Tokyo has always claimed first place in the hearts of most Tokyo residents. Moreover, the team picked up plenty of financial support from Tokyo-based corporations. Its lineup of sponsors reads like the Gold Card guest list at the Tokyo Business Convention. The focus on the business side of football was evident early in the team's history, as they were one of the first J.League teams to sell "naming rights" on its home stadium to a corporate sponsor. Tokyo Soccer Stadium received the unfortunate appellation of "Ajinomoto Stadium" way back in 2001.

The main element that FC Tokyo lacked, prior to 2002, was a group of young players who "grew up" with the team and gave it a character of its own. But the "lost boys" image that dogged FC Tokyo at the start was gradually relegated to the history books, and by the mid-00s the team had established one of the best youth programmes in the League. Apart from foreigners, and two or three veterans, most of the FC Tokyo starting lineup were acquired either directly from high school or university, or from the FC Tokyo Youth ranks.

As the character of the team has changed, its competitiveness began to increase as well. Under the tutelage of coach Hiromi Hara, FC Tokyo moved into the top half of the league table in both 2002 and 2003, claiming their first piece of silverware by winning the Nabisco (league) Cup in 2004 . But Tokyo has not always demonstrated the best instincts in terms of player selection, and this would prove to be a critical problem for the team during the middle of the decade. As it started to make the transition from the veterans who carried the team into the J1 to a crop of younger individuals, Tokyo made some highly questionable decisions. For example, in 2005 they released national team wing back Akira Kaji to make room for the flashy speedster Naohiro Ishikawa and university star Yuhei Tokunaga. Kaji went on to make key contributions to Gamba Osaka, who won the league in 2005 and the ACL title in 2008. Ishikawa, on the other hand, immediately injured his knee and missed large chunks of the next three seasons, while Tokunaga never managed to fulfill his early promise. Similarly, at the end of 2004 Tokyo decided that they had no room on the squad for a 19-year-old Japan-born Korean named Lee Chun-Soo. Lee moved to Kashiwa Reysol in 2005, took Japanese citizenship the following year, and emerged as an Olympic team star under his new name, Tadanari Lee. once again, the players who remained in Tokyo were unable to match the success of those who departed.

Mishaps such as these contributed to a gradual decline in quality, while injuries to several key players sent Tokyo spinning to the bottom of the league table in 2005. Though they recovered in the latter half of the season, to finish tenth, the poor performance cost coach Hara his job. The following year brought a similar slump and another coaching change, which did not do anything to develop continuity on this relatively young team. Though FC Tokyo still seemed to have a great deal of energy and flair, the players lacked the ability to channel all that energy into an effective game of football.

The team tried to revive their prospects at the beginning of 2007 by acquiring a "big name" foreigner. They signed Paulo Wanchope, who had a very successful career in the English Premier League but was definitely on the final leg of his football career. With young players like Sota Hirayama, Yohei Kajiyama and Yuta Baba starting to mature, a lot of pundits (including the Rising Sun News) thought that Tokyo could be a dark horse candidate for a title in 2007. But Wanchope turned out to be a major bomb (playing just five matches before being dropped unceremoniously at midseason), and the Tokyo youth contingent were just slightly less disappointing. Hiromi Hara, who was called back to the coaching chair after his replacement had produced even worse results, seemed determined to prove every criticism ever leveled against him in the past. The result was a depressing 12th place finish. It seemed that the Capitol City Blues were in danger of becoming another Sanfrecce Hiroshima -- packed with "promising" youngsters but never able to help them mature, and fulfil that promise.

But in 2008, the team made a very clever management decision which seems to have put the team on a more positive course. FC Tokyo handed over the coaching reins to Hiroshi Jofuku, who had earned a reputation for excellent youth development skills as coach of the U-17 and U-18 national team but was still untested at the helm of a professional club. This turned out to be an inspired choice, as Jofuku immediately instilled a work ethic and a sense of focus that the young players on this team had always seemed to lack, in the past. Tokyo roared out to a strong start in 2008, even managing to move atop the table for a week in the late spring. Though they faded as the long title chase moved into its final stretch, Tokyo not only recorded their best finish since 2003 -- sixth place -- they also got some very impressive individual contributions from youngsters that many thought might never fulfil their potential. Teruyuki Moniwa and Naohiro Ishikawa managed to make it through the season without serious injury for the first time since 2004, while rookie Yuto Nagatomo leapt immediately into a national team starting berth, and probably would have won rookie of the year honours if not for an injury in July that sidelined him for several months.

Under coach Jofuku, Tokyo demonstrated a lot of competitive fire and focus. In 2009 the team not only flirted with a top-three finish and an ACL berth, but also won the Nabisco Cup -- their first title since 2004. Changes off the pitch also bolstered the team and its organization. In 2009 the team finally adopted a "mascot" -- a tanuki (coon-dog) named Dorompa. This appeal to the younger crowd, as well as a variety of special publicity events and giveaways, attracted rising attendances, making FC Tokyo a not-too-distant third in terms of average attendances, behind perennial leaders Urawa and Niigata. The 2010 season began with fans hoping that FC Tokyo might finally be on the brink of a league championship, or at the very least, another cup trophy. The reality would be very hard to swallow.

As the 2010 season began, it soon became clear that the intensity of emotion and energy displayed by players had not been matched by any improvement in teamwork or "tactical maturity". On the contrary, the team seemed more prone than ever to running around wildly, creating a lot of excitement, but failing to produce any goals. Players like Naotake Hanyu, Sota Hiroyama and Masashi Oguro played with an energetic flair that kept fans on the edge of their seats, but they failed to turn all that effort into any victories. As the season moved into its final third, Tokyo was slipping into relegation territory and management seemed to panic. One can argue that coach Kiyoshi Okuma - who replaced Jofuku midseason - did as well as his predecessor in trying to right the ship. But the Tokyo Tanuki seemed to be mentally and emotionally spent, and convinced of their own doom. On the final week of the season, despite playing a weak team that had already been relegated (Kyoto Sanga), FC Tokyo stumbled to a depressing 2-0 loss and thus clinched relegation to the J2, for the first time since its 1999 inaugural year.

Fortunately, the players all felt a sincere responsibility for the failure, and to repay their debt to fans, nearly all of them agreed to stick around and help Tokyo rebound to the J1 at the first possible opportunity. The 2011 season gave FC Tokyo a chance to rejuvenate their roster, and when they returned in 2012 they settled in at around midtable, where they have remained ever since. Though this is certainly not good enough to satisfy fans in the nation's largest city, at least it is an improvement over their pre-relegation performance.

Hiroshi Jofuku took over as head coach in 2016, after a fourth-place finish that earned Tokyo a spot in the ACL for only the second time in team history. However, Jofuku had a difficult balancing act, to conserve energy on a team that is not particularly "deep". Perhaps he put too much focus on ACL, which hurt the team's standing in the J1. However, the team's response to a 9th place finish in the first stage was hard to understand -- Jofuku was sacked, only for his replacement (Yoshiyuki Shinoda) to achieve the exact same result in the second stage... even without any ACL distractions. The following season confirmed the mistake, with Shinoda sacked in September and the Coon-dogs finishing 13th. 

By this time, though, Tokyo's finances had reached a level approaching that of Urawa Reds, and after years of struggling to attract crowds, the team began to fill larger and larger portions of Ajinomoto Stadium. With average attendances now reaching the mid-20,000s, Tokyo had a sufficient cash flow to begin adding both domestic and foreign talent. To veterans like Masato Morishige, Kosuke Ota and Keigo Higashi, FC Tokyo added speedy striker Kensuke Nagai and veteran midfielder Yojiro Takahagi, while the team's historic links to Kanto-area universities allowed the team to sign Sei Muroya and Sotan Tanabe. Despite the shortcomings of the coaching staff, Tokyo was building a more competitive squad

In 2018, the coaching reins were at last handed to someone with a proven record for J.League success. Former S-Pulse and Gamba manager Kenta Hasegawa took over and almost immediately stamped his imprimatur on FC Tokyo. In his first season at the helm the Coon-dogs climbed to sixth place -- their best finish since 2009.

The following year, 2019, the Coon-dogs burst out of their winter lair and charged out to a nine-point lead at the top of the table, thanks to prolific offensive contributions from Kensuke Nagai, Diego Oliveira and teenage sensation Takefusa Kubo. Fans in the Capitol City began to talk excitedly about the team's first league title. But the celebrations were premature. Kubo signed with Real Madrid in July, and the subsequent confusion allowed Yokohama F.Marinos to edge past Tokyo and claim the title. Nevertheless, the second-place finish was Tokyo's best ever.

The competition is intensifying with the rise of clubs like Vissel Kobe and Consadole Sapporo. Yet Tokyo fans are hopeful that 2020 may finally be their year. The city plays host to the 2020 Olympics this summer, and this may be a good omen that the team may finally be on track to lift the league crown. Of course, a lot will depend on how much energy Tokyo puts into continental play. Coach Hasegawa needs to decide which trophy(s) to chase, and use his personnel efficiently, lest he suffer the same fate as Jofuku, in 2016. If he can strike a good balance between domestic and Asian competition, this just might be Tokyo's year.


Team Results for 1999-2002

Year Rank Win D L GF GA G.Dif
90 ET
1999 (J2) 2 19 2 3 12 51 35 +16
2000 (1st) 6 7 1 0 7 24 22 2
2000 (2nd) 8 5 2 1 7 23 19 4
2001 (1st) 9 5 3 0 7 18 19 -1
2001 (2nd) 8 5 0 5 5 29 28 +1
2002 (1st) 10 5 0 2 8 23 27 -4
2002 (2nd) 5 6 2 0 7 20 19 +1

Team Results for 2003-Present

Year Rank Pts W D L GF GA G.Dif
2003 (1st) 4 25 7 4 4 14 11 +3
2003 (2nd) 5 24 6 6 3 32 20 +12
2004 (1st) 6 23 6 5 4 19 19 +0
2004 (2nd) 10 18 4 6 5 21 22 -1
2005 10 47 11 14 9 43 40 +3
2006 13 43 13 4 17 56 65 -9
2007 12 45 14 3 17 49 58 -9
2008 6 55 16 7 11 50 46 +4
2009 5 53 16 5 13 47 39 +8
2010 16 36 8 12 14 36 41 -5
2011 (J2) 1 77 23 8 7 67 22 +45
2012 10 48 14 6 14 47 44 +3
2013 8 54 16 6 12 61 47 +14
2014 9 48 12 12 10 47 33 +14
2015 (1st) 2 35 11 2 4 24 18 +6
2015 (2nd) 6 28 8 4 5 21 15 +6
2016 (1st) 9 23 6 5 6 16 18 -2
2016 (2nd) 9 29 9 2 6 23 21 +2
2017 13 40 10 10 14 37 42 -5
2018 6 50 14 8 12 39 34 +5
2019 2 64 19 7 8 46 29 +17

*Note: Data for pre-2003 results is separated from more recent data to reflect the switch in the J.League's format, to eliminate "Golden Goal" overtime.